April 17, 1983: Mountain’s Felix Pappalardi Killed by Wifeby Best Classic Bands Staff
It was one of those stories so sordid and clichéd that you’d roll your eyes it if it had been the plot of a movie: A former rock star gives his wife a gun for protection. She finds out he’s been fooling around with a younger woman, takes said gun and shoots the rock star dead. The End. Roll credits.
It happened though. Felix Pappalardi was the former rock star. Gail Collins Pappalardi was the wife. Her defense was that the shooting was accidental. The jury acquitted her of murder and manslaughter but found her guilty of criminally negligent homicide. She was sentenced to a mere four years and did only two.
Felix Pappalardi was once a big name. Born in The Bronx and classically trained, he’d been a regular among the Greenwich Village folk crowd in the mid-’60s, first as an arranger for singer-songwriters like Tom Paxton and Fred Neil and then producing albums for Joan Baez and the Youngbloods, among others.
His big moment came in 1967 when Cream—the rising British blues-rock trio featuring Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker—hired him to produce their second album. Disraeli Gears catapulted Cream onto rock’s A-list and with it Pappalardi. He also produced their Wheels of Fire and Goodbye albums.
Related: 10 seminal hard rock albums
Pappalardi’s wife, Gail, was also involved somewhat in the creation of Cream music. She co-wrote their songs “Strange Brew” and “World of Pain,” and when Pappalardi moved on to his next endeavor, a new band called Mountain, she was involved with them too—co-writing songs with her husband and contributing her artwork to their album covers. Gail Collins wasn’t just another rock wife; she never wanted to be part of the scenery. She and Felix were a rock power couple in every way.
Mountain became huge fairly quickly. Pappalardi had produced Mountain, the debut solo album by Leslie West, a plus-sized guitarist (that’s where the band’s name came from) who had formerly led a New York City-area combo called the Vagrants. Out of that solo project grew Mountain the band, featuring West, Pappalardi on bass, keyboardist Steve Knight and drummer N. D. Smart (soon replaced by Corky Laing). They were brand new when they were given a slot at the Woodstock festival—the band’s fourth live appearance—and from there superstardom was theirs.
Their albums—Climbing, Nantucket Sleighride, Flowers of Evil—all sold well and the band notched one bona fide classic rock staple in “Mississippi Queen,” a 1970 hard-rocker that has to place near the top of any list of tunes making optimum use of a cowbell. Mountain is often credited today as one of the bands that paved the way for heavy metal, but their own reign ended only a few years after it had begun, following a U.K. tour in 1972 when tensions, drug abuse and other factors did them in.
Leslie West continued making music in various configurations and still does so today, but Pappalardi mostly faded from view in the years after Mountain. His hearing was shot from being assaulted night after night by the band’s volume. He continued to do some production work and even joined a re-formed Mountain for a bit, but for the most part, the name Felix Pappalardi was old news by the end of the 1970s.
On April 17, 1983, though, he was news again. He and his wife had reportedly become serious drug users by that point and although they had what some sources described as an open marriage, apparently it wasn’t that open. When Gail found out that Felix had become serious with a young singer-songwriter, Valerie Merians, she became enraged, reached for the gift her husband had given her, and shot him once in the neck.
As Felix Pappalrdi lay on the couple’s bed bleeding to death in his underwear, Gail Collins Pappalardi first called her attorney before dialing the emergency number. When police arrived, she told them she’d been practicing with the firearm, although it was 6 a.m. In court, she broke down on the witness stand, crying and pleading. The judge, aghast, reminded the jury that Gail had shown more concern for herself than Felix when she called her lawyer before the police. The jury shrugged off his admonition.
When Gail Collins Pappalardi was found dead on Dec. 6, 2013, in Ajijic, Mexico, where she’d been undergoing experimental cancer treatments, she was living under an assumed name. In her will she left instructions that her three cats be euthanized, their ashes scattered along with her own.
Watch Mountain perform “Mississippi Queen” at the N.Y. Pop Festival on Randall’s Island in 1970